Monday, February 18, 2008

US scientists pinpoint 14 top technological challenges

The US National Academy of Engineering has announced the grand challenges for engineering in the 21st century that, if met, would improve people's lives.

The list of 14 tasks was unveiled Friday by a diverse committee of experts from around the world, convened at the request of the US National Science Foundation.

"Tremendous advances in quality of life have come from improved technology in areas such as farming and manufacturing," said committee member and Google co-founder Larry Page. "If we focus our effort on the important grand challenges of our age, we can hugely improve the future."

The panel, some of the most accomplished engineers and scientists of their generation, was established in 2006 and met several times to discuss and develop the list of challenges.

Through an interactive Web site, the effort received worldwide input from prominent engineers and scientists, as well as from the general public, over a one-year period.

The panel's conclusions were reviewed by more than 50 subject-matter experts.

The final choices fall into four themes that are essential for humanity to flourish: sustainability, health, reducing vulnerability, and joy of living.

The committee did not attempt to include every important challenge, members said, nor did it endorse particular approaches to meeting those selected. Rather than focusing on predictions or gadgets, the goal was to identify what needs to be done to help people and the planet thrive.

"We chose engineering challenges that we feel can, through creativity and commitment, be realistically met, most of them early in this century," said committee chair and former US secretary of defense William Perry.

"Some can be, and should be, achieved as soon as possible," he added.

The committee decided not to rank the challenges. But their list includes making solar energy affordable, providing energy from fusion, managing the nitrogen cycle, providing access to clean water around the world, reverse-engineering the human brain, preventing nuclear terror and securing cyberspace among others.

NAE is offering the public an opportunity to vote on which one they think is most important and to provide comments at the project Web site:

"Meeting these challenges would be 'game changing,'" said NAE president Charles Vest. "Success with any one of them could dramatically improve life for everyone." Agence France-Presse

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